Who invented modern liberal democracy? The British and the Americans tend to assume that if any one individual deserves credit, it should be one of ourselves. However, the man with perhaps the best claim to priority was a Sephardic Jew living in 17th-century Holland: Benedict (or Baruch) de Spinoza.
On his recent visit to London, the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, gave a private briefing to editors and columnists. What he said was off the record, but I am not giving away any state secrets by revealing that Mr Netanyahu invoked the name of Spinoza. Now, I don’t want to make too much of this display of erudition. Whether or not the works of Spinoza are Bibi’s bedtime reading, he got away with it.
Even if this was a case of name-dropping, though, Spinoza’s is a surprising name for a leader of Likud to conjure with. It is not simply that one cannot easily imagine David Cameron citing, say, Spinoza’s contemporary Hobbes, however apt as a description of the Conservative-Liberal coalition the Leviathan’s “war of every man against every man” might be. It is, rather, the fact that Spinoza was expelled by the Jews of Amsterdam for his heterodoxy, above all his denial of the divine origin of the Torah. In 1656, Saul Levi Mortera, Rabbi of the Sephardic community, pronounced a cherem, or ban, which declared that “we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza” for his “abominable heresies”. Spinoza’s works were later banned by Christian and secular authorities, too. A century ago, the greatest German-Jewish philosopher of the day, Hermann Cohen, argued that Rabbi Mortera’s anathema had been entirely justified. Spinoza’s doctrines are still controversial today, especially the idea that the Bible is solely human in origin and must be studied using the same historical-critical principles as any other literary text. These debates still find their echo here in Standpoint.
It is, however, for his political philosophy that Spinoza is most relevant to us. Spinoza was indeed the first major modern thinker to defend both democracy and liberty. His Tractatus Theologico-Politicus is still the classic defence of the idea that “in a free state, every man may think what he likes and say what he thinks”. Unlike John Locke, for example, who denied toleration for Catholics or atheists and was certainly no democrat, Spinoza advocated toleration for all and universal male suffrage.
Spinoza also has a claim to be considered the first Zionist. More than three centuries before the state of Israel was founded, he was already writing: “If the foundations of their religion did not effeminate the minds of the Jews, I would absolutely believe that they will at some time, given the occasion (for human things are mutable), establish their state again.”
And Mr Netanyahu is surely correct that Spinoza would have defended the right, for example, of the United States to kill Osama bin Laden, just as he would have approved of Israel’s right to kidnap, put on trial and execute Adolf Eichmann, or to kill the founder of Hamas, Sheikh Yassin. For Spinoza, the free commonwealth “has not merely the right to avenge itself, or to lay down and interpret laws, but also to abolish the same”.
Spinoza stands — unobtrusively — at the bloody crossroads where liberal democracy confronts its nemesis: a radical evil that mutates with time, but is personified by such monsters as Hitler, Stalin, Khomeini and bin Laden. It is a nemesis that invariably shows itself by threatening the security and even the existence of the Jewish people. Where democracy degenerates into demagogy and liberty is weak, the Jews are always at risk: in the France of Dreyfus, in the Weimar Republic, in much of the world today. That is why Israel is so important: if liberal democracy fails to protect the Jews of the Diaspora, there is always a place where they are welcome, and which is a free commonwealth such as Spinoza dreamt of.
This month we consider the West’s reaction to bin Laden’s death from very different quarters, but the same standpoint emerges each time. Lionel Shriver is an American in Europe, Mara Delius a European in America — yet they are both glad to see him laid low. In London Douglas Murray laments British escapism and Joshua Rozenberg exposes sophistry, while across the Atlantic Amity Shlaes rejoices that President Obama has discovered that he too is a neocon after all.
Western civilisation still faces a long struggle to overcome the jihadist menace, but this is a moment to remind ourselves why this civilisation is worth defending. As Leo Strauss comments, Spinoza “was the philosopher who founded liberal democracy, a specifically modern regime”. If the convulsions now spreading across the Muslim world do indeed prove to usher in liberty, democracy and modernity, they are indebted to Spinoza. But should the Arab Spring turn against freedom and democracy, like the Islamic Revolution of 1979, we should remind ourselves that what we are defending is in large measure the legacy of one of the greatest of the many Jewish pioneers who have left their mark on Western civilisation.